The US military frequently used burn pits to eliminate toxic and standard waste during several conflicts, including Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. While burn pits may have been convenient waste disposal methods at the time, they may have inadvertently exposed servicemembers to various toxins and poisons. Up to 3.5 million service members and veterans were exposed to burn pits.
Over time, many military Veterans exposed to burn pits developed several respiratory conditions, including sleep apnea which can affect sleep quality and pose a significant respiratory threat. Some Veterans believe that their exposure to burn pits may have contributed to or directly caused their sleep apnea. Unfortunately, research into the harmful effects of burn pits has only recently begun, despite the decades of use. As discussed below, most diseases attributed to burn pit exposure are related to the respiratory system.
What is a Burn Pit?
A burn pit is an area devoted to the open-air combustion of trash. Burn pits were a common waste disposal practice at military sites outside the United States, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Smoke from these pits contained substances that may have short- and long-term health effects, especially for those who were exposed for long periods or those more prone to illness, such as individuals with pre-existing asthma or other lung or heart conditions.
Waste products in burn pits include but are not limited to chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics, Styrofoam, rubber, wood, and discarded food. Burning waste in pits can create more hazards compared to controlled high-temperature burning—like in a commercial incinerator.
Toxins in burn pit smoke may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract, and internal organs.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. The main types of sleep apnea are:
· Obstructive sleep apnea, the more common form that occurs when throat muscles relax
· Central sleep apnea, which occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing
· Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, which occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea
Typically, sleep apnea is diagnosed by a doctor after a person complains of ongoing fatigue or their partner complains about loud snoring and repeated adjustments or discomfort while they are asleep. Sleep apnea is typically diagnosed with Polysomnography, also known as a sleep study.
The symptoms of sleep apnea include but are not limited to:
Veterans experiencing these symptoms should discuss with their doctor to determine if they need a sleep study to evaluate for sleep apnea. A diagnosis of sleep apnea is an essential step for filing a claim for disability compensation and for proving service connection.
Does the VA concede that burn pits cause sleep apnea?
No. Unfortunately, sleep apnea is not one of the conditions that the VA currently presumes is caused by burn pits. In August 2021, the VA announced three conditions that the VA will process on a presumptive basis based on presumed particulate matter exposures during military service in Southwest Asia and certain other areas. And in August 2022 Congress passed the PACT Act, which adds many more respiratory conditions and cancers to the list of presumptive conditions for those with qualifying service.
Since the creation of VA’s particulate matter presumption and the PACT Act, VA presumes that Veterans who served in the following locations during the relevant dates were exposed to particulate matter pollution or other environmental hazards including burn pit smoke:
Veterans with one of the categories of service above are entitled to presumptive service connection for the following conditions:
For now, Veterans are not entitled to presumptive consideration of their sleep apnea condition if they served in one of these areas known to use burn pits. Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has indicated that the “VA will continue to use a holistic approach in determining toxic exposure presumptives moving forward.” Thus, respiratory conditions, including sleep apnea, will continue to be evaluated for presumptive consideration.
Therefore, a Veteran claiming sleep apnea will need to prove with medical evidence that their sleep apnea condition was directly caused by burn pit exposure or is otherwise related to military service or a service-connected disability. Claiming sleep apnea on direct service connection depends on the facts and circumstances of the Veteran’s case. Facts and circumstances including the onset of the disease, the degree of toxic exposure, the type of sleep apnea diagnosis, notations in the Veteran’s service treatment records, whether current medical records associate the Veteran’s sleep apnea to service, including exposure to burn pits, current scientific research showing a relationship to in-service exposures, etc.
Alternatively, Veterans could claim sleep apnea as a secondary condition to an already service-connected primary condition. In fact, medical research does indicate that asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis can cause or aggravate a sleep apnea condition, which is one way to link sleep apnea to particulate or burn pit exposure. Other common theories for sleep apnea include secondary causation or aggravation by PTSD, neck disabilities, and any mental or physical disability that causes the Veteran to become obese. We recommend discussing your case further with an experienced attorney at Berry Law.
What is a presumptive basis?
A presumptive basis is a theory of entitlement for service connection. When the VA provides a presumption for a specific condition, the Veteran does not need to prove that their condition is related to service. In other words, the VA concedes the condition is related to service. The Veteran only needs to prove that their service qualifies for the presumption and they are diagnosed with the presumed condition. For some presumptions, the Veteran also needs to prove that their condition manifested within a certain time. The Secretary of the VA can authorize presumptive consideration based on the VA’s evaluation of medical evidence, but Congress has also approved several.
Burn Pit Registry – What You Need To Know
In June 2014, VA launched the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry in response to concerns that Veterans were experiencing a range of respiratory illnesses possibly associated with exposure to burn pits. Any Veteran who wishes to potentially qualify for disability benefits after being exposed to burn pit toxins should sign up for the burn pit registry.
The burn pit registry helps Veterans accurately document their symptoms or health conditions related to burn pit toxin exposure. The goal of the burn pit registry is to collect information from multiple sources about respiratory and other illnesses to help scientists determine what connections if any, exist between chronic illnesses and burn pits.
You do not have to sign up for the burn pit registry. However, it provides many benefits, including that it requires you to gather vital information for any future disability benefits claim.
Only Veterans who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and New Dawn are eligible. Qualifying areas include Afghanistan, Arabian Sea, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Persian Gulf, Qatar, Red Sea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan. Veterans should know that participation in the burn pit registry is not a claim for disability compensation. A Veteran that wishes to file a claim for compensation for any condition must use the proper form to do so. Further, participation in the burn pit registry does not necessarily guarantee or increase the likelihood that a disability claim will be granted.
Berry Law is a Veteran-focused law office dedicated to helping Veterans just like you acquire the full disability benefits they deserve for past military service.
Not only can we help you file for disability because of your sleep apnea, but we may also be able to assist with receiving disability benefits due to your exposure to burn pits. We don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that many Veterans developed sleep apnea after being exposed to various toxins. Several of Berry Law’s own attorneys, advocates, and staff were exposed to burn pits during their service. Veterans exposed to these toxic chemicals during their honorable service are entitled to disability compensation and medical care for their conditions caused by this exposure.
We’ve helped Veterans acquire compensation for sleep apnea and related respiratory conditions, including those who were exposed to burn pit toxins during their years of active service. Contact us today for more information and a free consultation.
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